Top 10 films of 2013: Pacific Rim

At number 6 in our countdown of our favourite films of the year, it's Guillermo del Toro's monster smash...

Over the past few weeks, Den of Geek writers have been voting for their favourite films of the year. The votes were weighted, calculated, and compiled into our top ten. And here, at number 6, is Pacific Rim…

The last Kaiju movie that I had seen prior to Pacific Rim was 1962’s King Kong vs Godzilla. Its entertainment value lay mainly in its kitsch qualities, although no-one watching could claim they hadn’t been entertained. This was in 2005. I would not claim to be any sort of expert or have much more than a passing knowledge of Kaiju creatures and movies.

However, I do enjoy a good bout of ludicrously macho shouting-fests, especially if this includes: swaggering posture, homoerotic undercurrents, and preposterous dialogue (all delivered with a special blend of utter conviction and a twinkle in the eye that suggests they know exactly how silly this is all is). Pacific Rim was, in this respect, an insidious throwback to 80s action movies, and nary a greased Statham in sight. Instead, we had Idris Elba, and he was drier than Dave Allen in a talcum powder factory.

This testosterone-fuelled pomp, however, was not the reason that I left the cinema in a mood psychologists refer to as ‘Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins‘. Obviously the monstrous behemothradite denizens of a Lovecraftian ubermension combined with the roaring Jaeger-folk barfing spurious morality at each other was – as I believe the youth say – ‘fun’, but that wasn’t it.

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It, in this case, was Thunderbirds.

‘Hold your horses,’ you might be saying, but that’s a silly thing to say. I have no horses. This is the future. And, being in the future, I reserve the right to be disappointed by the lack of Gerry Anderson-style tech developed by Mekon-lobed Poindexters. Thunderbirds is set in 2065. Pacific Rim is set in the 2020s. I see no reason why we can’t assume they’re set in the same universe, apart from both the reasons.

What Pacific Rim did better than anything else I have seen for decades is make me fall a little bit in love with the hardware. The production design of Pacific Rim just reduces me to a wide-eyed child watching the Thunderbird 3 take-off sequence for the first time, uncaring that to its detractors it seems to go on forever and features Alan Tracy more than is ever necessary. That launch sequence is ludicrous, the scale is huge, and – my favourite thing about Thunderbirds ever – a key part of the launch sequence of this spacecraft involves the Tracy’s sofa being poked up Thunderbird 3 with a big stick.

Pacific Rim‘s world is a long way from the homeliness of Tracy Island, being pre-postponed apocalypse and all that, but the scale is similar, and taps into that ineffably giddy love that folk have for giant machines, the one that informs Steampunk, Scrapheap Challenge, the romance of space-exploration, Heath Robinson, and Ted Hughes’ Iron Man. Next time you watch Pacific Rim have a look at the backgrounds, the sheer wealth of mundane-yet-reality-selling detail there. Then keep an eye out in the credits for the people who designed and built all of this. Someone out there remembered Thunderbirds, and that the only way to improve a tooling up sequence is to make it bigger, and with machines designed to do what we can’t: go into space, rescue a plane, knee a pure radge hammerhead lizard thingy right up its nads.

I’ve mentioned that Pacific Rim is a bit ridiculous. It could be – and for some people, it is – a farrago of violent splurges, amplified nonsense on stilts at the shallow end of the meme pool. Part of its success is that – given the eternal ‘most films/cynicism’ loop – we had no reason to expect such a concept to be anything other than another 12A action film where some young white American guy blows stuff up. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. A huge reason for this, I believe, is down to its director.

Guillermo del Toro took his love of Kaiju, took influences ranging from Francisco Goya to H.P. Lovecraft to George Bellows, and took his relentless energy; with these he turned Pacific Rim from being another Real Steel into something other. Under no delusions that he was making high art, he gave us a film that could have simply been a bit like Transformers and put his own spin on it. Can you imagine this film being directed by Michael Bay? Even with Francis Lawrence or Alan Taylor – who have put in great work with blockbusters this year – at the helm, it’s hard to see the film working anywhere near as well without del Toro.

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He brings with him a determination to get the world of his film right, to tell a story with backgrounds as well as actors, and also to film fight sequences in static, comprehensible wide-shots. Here the fights are between giants, and are brought to life as that concept deserves. Another boon to the Snakes on a Plane-esque ‘robots vs monsters’ high concept is that you can do things to your combatants that wouldn’t be possible with two humans in those positions. 12A rated violence ensues, but because the only blood is from another dimension it’s easier to pass by the censors (is that racist? Are the BBFC ultimately going to cause the first interplanetary conflict?).

The fight sequences are therefore very satisfying: fun and perilous, bittersweet like eating a Crunchie on a Thursday. Also the concept of Drifting means that the deaths of the Jaeger pilots are more horrible than their being merely physically damaged. Despite the inherent silliness, the cast nail playing it completely straight while having fun, and ultimately that conviction sells the harder edges that make the film all the more impressive.

Pacific Rim ticks many boxes. It’s nostalgia-inducing for a variety of genres, visually splendid (building a world with pictures more than dialogue), gleefully serious, has fights you can actually follow, and – after The Mountains of Madness was not to be – brings some Lovecraftian spectacle to a mass audience.

There’s a lot in there, and part of the thrill comes from Pacific Rim having no right to be this good, but del Toro was looking for an operatic scale, and found it where another director might only have found a Pendulum b-side.